February 20, 1999
Required by law to impose tougher rules on automobile air pollution by 2004, Carol Browner, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, is going about it in just the right way. The new regulations she has sent to the White House for its approval will require not only cleaner engines but cleaner fuels as well. This means that not one but two powerful industries -- the automobile manufacturers and the oil companies -- will be lobbying to relax those rules.
Ms. Browner is almost certain to get President Clinton's support. Less certain is the outlook in Congress, where some Republicans have repeatedly tried to undermine her administrative authority. The most controversial rule would drastically reduce pollution from so-called light
trucks -- a category that includes the wildly popular sport utility vehicles (S.U.V.'s), mini-vans and pickup trucks that have done so much to bring the good times back to Detroit. Until now, vehicles in this category have been allowed to produce up to three times as much pollution per mile as standard cars, because regulator shave regarded light trucks as work vehicles.
The proposed rules would cut the allowable pollution from standard cars in half by 2004, and require most S.U.V.'s, mini-vans and pickups to meet the same standard by 2007. Mini-vans, S.U.V.'s and pickups account for nearly half of new purchases, and their popularity could soon obliterate recent gains in air quality. With that in mind, California announced in November that these vehicles would have to meet the state's emissions standards for autos by 2006, as lightly stricter timetable than Ms. Browner's. The automobile companies may lobby for an even more relaxed schedule. But they have been mollified to some extent by Ms. Browner's concurrent decision to order up cleaner fuels, which will make it easier for the car makers to meet their targets.
Refineries will be required to cut the nationwide average of sulfur in gasoline by about 90 percent, beginning in 2004. This is vital because sulfur clogs up a vehicle's catalytic converter, the device that cleans car exhaust of nitrogen oxide and other pollutants that cause smog and acid rain. Cleaner gasoline alone could achieve the same result as taking 54 million cars off the road-- a prospect that delights states like New York that are constantly struggling to bring their air into compliance with Federal health standards. Americans will pay more under these new rules, although it is not clear how much.
The new emissions standards could add several hundred dollars to the cost of S.U.V.'s and other vehicles in the light truck category, and the sulfur rules could add several cents to the price of a gallon of gasoline as the oil companies retool their refineries to meet the new standard. Oil industry spokesmen say the adjustments could cost $5 billion to $6 billion altogether. However, ever since the original Clean Air Act was written into law in 1970, industry in general has routinely overestimated the costs of environmental rules while greatly underestimating the ability of its own engineers to respond to timely regulation and commercial realities. Ms. Browner is betting that improved technology can deliver cleaner vehicles and cleaner fuels at an affordable price. Historically, that has been a safe bet.


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